Now in his second stint as foreign minister under Silvio Berlusconi, Franco Frattini is easily Italy's most serious politician. From his suite in Rome, Frattini chatted with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Klaidman and Barbie Nadeau about Italy's willingness to use soldiers in Afghanistan and his government's renewed commitment to resettle Guantánamo detainees as a gesture of "solidarity" with the United States. Frattini, whose temperament has been called more Scandinavian than Italian, showed passion only in defending Berlusconi against a tabloid-alleged affair with an 18-year-old underwear model from Naples. Excerpts:
You canceled a state visit to Tehran, which would have violated the EU ban on high-level diplomatic contact. Why were you going to go?
There is no ban. There is an informal agreement that until a final solution on the nuclear dossier is found, no political contacts can be made with the Iranian authorities except by [EU foreign minister] Javier Solana. My visit was an institutional duty as president of the G8, and Afghanistan-Pakistan stabilization is priority No. 1 for G8 foreign policy … In a conversation with [Richard] Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton, we decided that I should try to involve Iran at the highest political level below their president.
You have increased the number of troops in Afghanistan, but you still have limits on what these troops can do?
We are ready to do even more, but we need our soldiers to have full access to all intelligence related to the ground situation—confidential information provided by the American authorities.
Berlusconi has said Italy would consider taking in some Guantánamo detainees.
We have two conditions. Once a European state says yes, the other states—even those who said no—accept it. If we accept detainees to be freed because they'd be at risk in their home countries, I cannot impose freedom of circulation on Austria, which refuses to accept them. We have no borders between Italy and Austria; people drive from Verona to Vienna without checkpoints. So I have to be sure that Austria considers this possibility. Another condition we have is that we cannot put people in jail except those who are on trial in Italy.
Have you had discussions with your European counterparts about circulation?
I have a solution. We should adopt a national law that they are obliged to stay in Italy only, under police escort. This puts a heavy burden on our shoulders. But in the spirit of close solidarity to the United States, I am proposing it. Otherwise we would be contradicting ourselves first to blame the Bush administration for keeping Guantánamo Bay open and then not to help the Obama administration close it.
Some might say to Americans, "You made your bed. Now lie in it."
Yes, that is the opinion of many of the member states. Italy will not accept a package of detainees. Each and every detainee will be evaluated. This is being done to show solidarity with America, not because America doesn't have space for the detainees.
Berlusconi is facing pressure to explain his relationship with the underwear model Noemi Letizia. Is this Italy's Clinton Moment?
Berlusconi has nothing to do with the scandalous stories with this young girl.
In other words, it's not true?
It's absolutely not true. Here we are preparing a trial without allegations.
Have you asked the prime minister personally?
I did. He said it was absolutely not true. And he promised on the head of his five children. Frankly, I cannot believe it could be true.
But it would have been a crime if she were under 18.
Absolutely not. In Italy it is a crime under the age of 14. Between 14 and 18 is absolutely legal.